Deterrence stability may be defined as the assurance of non-use of nuclear weapons in crisis or conflict with the warring sides deterred from introducing nuclear weapons in a conflict. Bringing this about requires technological, command and control arrangements, organisational and stable civil-military relations by both sides. Since this is a dynamic process, deterrence stability is a page always ‘under construction’. This was aptly explained by Micheal Krepon, speaking at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi on February 8, 2011.
Pakistan’s arsenal has been inching up the nuclear ladder. The Washington Post, on January 31, 2011 reports: “Those figures make Pakistan the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power, ahead of ‘legal’ powers France and Britain.” The figure is 100 weapons, representing a ‘doubling’ over the past four years. Yet, this advance of 10 weapons over last year has scarcely been remarked upon in India. Are Indian comfort levels to do with deterrence stability?
A Pakistan comfortable with its nuclear capability is an advantageous for deterrence stability. Therefore, if it is working towards a figure in the upper two digits or lower three digits, it is a nuclear reality India could live with. Having ‘edged past India’, as per the Washington Post, Pakistan would not then see itself as the disadvantaged side in a nuclear equation. The perception of parity would enable it to rest easy its nuclear finger. Pakistan would not be faced with a ‘use them or lose them’ dilemma, on two counts. One is in its increased numbers assuring second strike capability and second is India’s assurance of ‘no first use’ (NFU), thus avoiding nuclear brinkmanship and contributing to deterrence stability.
This understanding of deterrence stability is tested by the diverse doctrines of the two states. India’s doctrine is underpinned by the belief, as stated by a former defence minister, that “nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons”. Pakistan, taking a page out of NATO’s Cold War doctrine, has a wider usage for nuclear weapons, it being to deter war itself. India, on the other hand, sees scope for conventional war below the nuclear threshold, albeit a limited war. This divergence in nuclear doctrines contributes to deterrence instability in light of prevalent strategic instability.
Continuing strategic instability in South Asia owes to Pakistani unwillingness, under the guise of inability, to roll back terror infrastructure. In a failing state, non-state actors have acquired greater autonomy, with another terror attack a distinct possibility. While India’s strategic restraint thus far has received considerable acclaim, it may be severely tested next time round. Internal political considerations may override India’s cost-benefit calculation forcing it to react militarily by administering, at a minimum, lower levels of military punishment, such as by surgical strikes. Pakistani response could witness a descent from crisis into conflict. What are implications of the doctrinal divergence in the context of such strategic instability?
That Pakistan has not acceded to NFU does not necessarily imply ‘first use’. However, prudence requires that the possibility of first use is ruled in. In the Pakistan nuclear weapons discourse first use may be “in a defensive mode, on its own territory, on a tactical target, with a strategic purpose”. This does not automatically imply a failure of Indian deterrence. Deterrence would have succeeded to the extent of restricting the strike to lower order levels. What does this mean for deterrence stability?
India’s resort to limited war, as in the scenario, negates Pakistani perception of nuclear weapons deterring war. India’s perception of nuclear weapons deterring nuclear weapons too comes under question. Neither country is entirely right. This implies that finding a middle ground in perceptions of deterrence may help with deterrence stability in conditions of strategic instability. What constitutes the modus vivendi?
With both arsenals poised at about the three figure mark, there is an assurance of second strike capability. Neither can expect to wipe out the other’s capability for nuclear retaliation causing unacceptable damage. That Pakistan would suffer more, given the disparity in size, accounts partially for its reach for higher numbers. It perhaps feels the need to inflict a higher level of damage on India for proportionate levels of hurt and pain. Given this, a situation of mutual assured destruction can be deemed to exist.
Though there is a school of thought that says that India can survive a nuclear attack, while Pakistan cannot, India would not like to compromise its national aim of economic and socio-political revival. Its threshold of ability to withstand damage goes down in proportion to its advance. It would therefore prefer to avoid receiving unacceptable nuclear damage, since compensation in the form of demise of Pakistan is not worth the setback.
What does this imply?
In a situation of strategic instability, deterrence stability is therefore predicated not so much on probability of nuclear non-use as on limiting nuclear escalation to levels below unacceptable damage. In other words, since non-use cannot be guaranteed, deterrence stability rests on avoiding unacceptable damage. It follows that while non-use is the best, given that ensuring against escalation is not possible to guarantee, the next best is to make sure that any nuclear exchange terminates at the lowest possible level, as posited in the Sundarji doctrine.
What is the practical fallout? It means a revision of India’s nuclear deterrence doctrine away from its promise of nuclear retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage. This means a move towards ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation. This does not lessen deterrence in that the possibility of escalation to unacceptable levels will continue to serve to deter, since there is no guarantee against escalation.
This is a better way to cope with the more likely scenario of Pakistani nuclear first use. It would entail assured retaliation, but perhaps with commensurate levels of attack. It would be in line with India’s national aims and war aims. The change would bring India’s advantages at both the conventional and nuclear levels back into the reckoning, thereby strengthening deterrence.
The revision of deterrence stability as proposed here is up for debate.
Ali Ahmed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).